The Ways in Which a Novel Can Fail Like a Marriage
Josh Weil Considers How Hard It Is to Drown All His Darlings
They watch me: Harlan, with his blood-spattered beard and terrified eyes, his eerie babbling at the deer that he’d been butchering giving way to the silence of his stare; Maura, lying beneath her half-starved husband in the lantern light, another night, listening through his crying for any sign of their baby stirring, her eyes inescapable flickers of glint; the baby, his first words found and lost, gone dumb just as he had begun to speak, his mute gaze on me as if forever asking why; the entire family—grandmother and sister, even the mule, even the two murdered bluetick hounds—wondering how I could have simply turned away and left them.
I want to tell them that I tried. That I will try again. But I have been here enough times now, over a long enough career, to know that I might not. I have failed to find the right way to tell too many stories. I have consigned too many characters to the grave. I think that, when I die, that will be the regret that pains me most: the people I’ve made and loved and left to die before they could be born into a world beyond my mind.
This summer I abandoned a novel I’d been writing for nearly two years. How many hundreds of hours had I spent researching, writing, struggling to get it right? How many days and weeks had I stolen from my family? How much of my mind had I given to that book? All of it.
I’d drawn detailed maps of that high mountain homestead, from the potato hut to the place the dogs were chained, set the root barrels in their right corner, knew what mix of mud and hair would chink the chimney. I’d flown across the country, holed up in a cabin on the same ridge where I had set the story, shunted aside the rest of my life to live with the book, rethink each piece that wasn’t working, and I’d fixed it, I knew it, and flown back charged, and gone down to my trailer on the creek where I now write, and failed again. Only to do it all again a year later. By the time I finally gave up I had written some four hundred pages, a handful of scenes as good as anything that I can do, many of the best sentences I’ll ever string together. I had spent more time with those characters than with anyone in my outer life, grown to know their hearts more closely than I ever could my closest friends’, climbed inside them in a way I never will even my kids, my wife.
Kill your darlings, the old saw goes. Terrible and true. But I’m not talking about severing a limb to save the whole, tossing a scene or character for the good of the greater story. I’m talking about doing away with the whole damn thing.
How do you know if something’s still worth working on? That is the hardest question I get asked by other writers, students or peers. How do you know when it’s time to quit? Thank God they never ask the only one that’s worse: How the hell, then, do you do it?
When I was twe20nty I began writing the book that would become my first serious novel. By then I was already serious about the woman who would become my first wife. I was 23 and done with the book the year we were married, 24 and facing that book’s failure the year we were divorced. Nearly 30 before I’d managed to move on. All that, a decade now in the past. Old hat.
But I am thinking about persistence and quitting, tenacity and the terror of letting go.
A friend of mine and fellow novelist once said to me, in sympathy, during a low time in my struggle with the novel I would eventually give up, We are the salt miners of the arts. He meant the work it takes, the years of it, the strain to write a book that is not just a pile of words but something worth being called art. He meant the hacking and hauling and breaking down and going back again, day after day. He meant if they, those real workers laboring amid hundred-and-some heat, can make it through, we can, too. If there is one fundamental truth about writing it is this: you won’t get far if you quit easily. Talent may give you a set of hands well-shaped to holding tools, study may teach you how to use them, but what you do from there is as much about sheer will as wizardry.
Usually the two are intertwined. For me it often goes like this: I catch a glimpse of something striking enough to make me need to see the rest, but it is hidden behind a wall that I will have to get through first. I know by now there is a magic brick, that if I can find it the wall will simply fall away and the story will unfurl before me and I will leap over the rubble and race down that path and keeping running—refusing to stop for anything but food and sleep—till I am done. The trick is finding the brick. Sometimes it takes no more than minutes. Sometimes months or even years. I’ll bang away at one after another, pushing with palms, punching with fists, finally slamming my forehead against it, again and again. More than once I have felt my skull start to give way, known it would crack before that story’s wall. The year that I attempted to write my first novel since losing my first wife, I holed up in that cabin in Virginia, entirely alone for months on end, and wound up weeping one day on the floor, hammering my head against the oak boards, bellowing like some bullcalf from the nearby pasture—and paused. Above me, the ceiling fan whirred. Below me: the ceaseless trickling of spring water through the pipes. I could hear my wailing sifting into the quiet of the valley.
I simply can’t and also won’t put my energy into fixing something that I’m not sure can be fixed. This my ex wrote to me in one of the last correspondences from her that I received. I’m 31 years old, she said, and that’s too old to stay in a relationship that you know isn’t working.
A few months later she would be dating another man who would become another husband, the one to whom, as far as I can tell, she is still married. The right one.
Now, digging up old emails I haven’t thought about in years, it’s clear to me she was the wiser one when it came to us, that had I put as much effort into understanding the ways of my own heart as I did the ways into the hearts of my characters, it might not have taken me most of a decade to move on.
Over that time—my early twenties to my early thirties—I wrote three novels. Half-wrote more than that. Dated maybe a dozen women. Including, for the year and a half before she wrote me that near-to-last letter, my ex-wife, again.
There are as many reasons for a book to fail as there are for a relationship. One was 1,300 pages typed by a boy whose understanding of the world hadn’t caught up to his need to write it out. Another worked well enough as a novella, never should have tried to be more than it was.
The summer before graduate school, I wrote a novel about the things I thought had wrought my divorce, and rewrote it over the years it took to complete the MFA, and when I was done realized that what it was at its core was more relevant to me than to a story anybody else needed to read. In the four years between my divorce and the second time my ex and I tried, I dated women I could have, maybe should have, loved, if I hadn’t still been hung up on my ex wife. Sometimes it’s like that with stories too: it’s not that the book is the wrong one, just that it’s come at the wrong time for you. Sometimes you’re just not in the same place: one wanted kids, and quick; another didn’t want them ever; I tried to return to the 1,300-page book and write it from scratch, at a quarter the length, but I wasn’t the same writer, couldn’t make it come alive in the same way.
That year down at the cabin I tried to write a new novel, one that I still believe will someday be the best book I have in me, but sometimes the story comes to you before you’ve become a writer skilled enough to tell it. And sometimes you just have to write the wrong ones to get to the one that’s right. Sometimes it’s failing that lets you.
That day I lay on the cabin floor and listened to the echoes of my wails, I set aside the book I’d been working on. Which is a kind way of saying I gave up. Which is something I can admit only because I also got up, and went to my desk, and went back to a single sentence I had written six months earlier. Always, it began, the island had been out there, and it didn’t stop for half a page, not even to let the reader breathe, and for that reason and a hundred others it had scared me away from writing the sentence that would come after, and I had tried to put it aside, and for the past year I had failed to rid it from my mind, and when I sat down and started writing it just came, rolled, that inimitable rush, what would become my second book, the first novel that I, at last, would publish.
That spring I finished the first draft. That summer I met the woman who would become my second wife, the one who I’m still married to, the one who’s right. We were at a writing conference, sealed off from the rest of the world as much by our minds as by the surrounding mountains, and the rush I felt falling for her in those few days is the closest thing I’ve ever known to what it feels like when that brick wall breaks. But for the next year I tried to stop myself from stepping fully through, kept stepping back out again.
There were as many things about her that scared me as there had been about that half-page sentence that I had tried to set aside, and a year into a love affair that had refused to wane, I tried to do the same with her. This time I was at a writing residency, 3,000 miles away. It was after dinner, dusk, when I walked out onto the lawn and called her. She was crying too hard to talk. Too hard to say anything except that she wasn’t going to hang up. I’m not going to do it for you, she said. So I had to.
Why am I telling you this? Because it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, one of the worst that I have done to someone. The closest I have come to doing what I do to characters I love—as much? Maybe—over and over again. Because sometimes quitting is the harder thing to do. And sometimes doing it is the only way to find out if it’s right.
There are a thousand ways that a book can be wrong, that the answer to the question, Is it still worth working on? can be, No. But, for me at least, there is really only one way to know if the answer’s yes: that when you try to let it go, something inside you, something that knows better, won’t let you. Won’t let you put it aside, won’t let you rid it from your mind. That, in the end, you are made to realize you have no choice in it at all.
And Harlan? Maura? That baby—his name was Everett; I called him Ev—with those imploring eyes? Two months after I decided to set them aside, it still hurts. But I also know they are not the same as old flames, at least in this way: they cannot become the betrothed of some other author, they cannot move on in their own lives, will be waiting for me should I ever come to the right place in my life to reach back to them again. So long as I remain alive there is at least that possibility. Slim as I know it is, it comforts me.
As I write this, I am sitting in my trailer, down on the creek, my mind already drifting to what comes next. I can feel it like a faint breeze, see it in the stirring of the willow leaves: an idea for a novel that I came close to starting two years ago—before I got scared off by everything from what the writing would require to the fact of the new baby my wife and I had just brought into our lives—a book about a man whose name I still don’t know, but whose gaze, all this time, has held me too hard to shake. A story set right here, in my new home, this land between the creek and the higher mountains where the water is released.
Well, that would be one way to wrap this up. And maybe, at another time in an earlier life, it might have been right. But up the hill, above my trailer, my wife is busy getting our kids ready for school—making sure my teenage step-daughter has had a shower, trying to cajole our two-and-a-half year old son into his shoes—and this afternoon I will pick them up and take them home so she can take her time for herself, my part in a life that some days seems to require that we hardly see each other, me and the woman I loved too much to leave, that leaves no room for us to touch the thing between us that is the whole reason we are together.
How do you know if something’s still worth working on? When a writer asks me this, I tell her pretty much what I’ve said here—holds you and can’t quit it and excites you still—and I do believe that’s true. But I also know it’s not enough. Sometimes you lose the excitement and simply have to push through a week or month or even year before it comes back. Sometimes you to have to step away, write another story, in order to return far down the road. And sometimes, when you try, you can’t. Even if the book is right. Your subconscious, or your self-doubt, or simply the pressures of life beyond the writing won’t let you. Sometimes you just don’t have the juice.
Which is all right. Because, in the end, the reason it’s such a hard question to answer is not that it’s so huge—though in the moment it feels momentous as any question a writer can ask—but because it is only one part of something that is far larger.
My wife, wise and kind woman she is, sometimes says that she is glad I dated all the women I did, grateful, even, because they each helped make me the man with whom she (miraculously) remains in love. They—from first wife to flings—are part of me. And so, in some strange way, part of my marriage. A thing built on all the selves she and I have been before, and out of all the selves we’ll go through in the years to come, ones that suffer through days or weeks or months when we seem to have lost the juice, ones we’ll have to discard to start again, ones that will make us beat our heads against the floorboards before we will, miraculously, find what holds us still. A lifelong thing (one hopes), far longer (one hopes) than the writing of any single book.
But not than the writing, the act of writing, of being a writer. When I step back and try to view all this with as wide a scope as my wife can manage to bring to me, I can see it: that is the something. That is the relationship: not between me and any one piece, but between the writer and the writing, the whole of it, the books birthed by the failures of others, the characters haunted by the memories of those long buried, each work grown out of the remains of what came before, and so containing everything, of me, of my writing. Something worth working on. Or maybe towards.
What will the final thing that I write be? Strange question to contemplate. A little unsettling. Wholly unknowable, except for this: it will be the only thing that will hold inside it all that there was and will be, the books published and the ones abandoned, stories told and untold, words written or imagined, characters long missed or long forgotten—they will all be there. We’ll sit together, side by side, all the writers I’ve been and all the writing they’ve done, having become the two—that final writer, that final work—that will be left, an old couple, holding hands as we have all our lives, paired till the last breath, looking one last time into each other’s eyes. Harlan and Maura and Ev and all the rest: I’ll see you there.
Josh Weil’s new collection of stories, The Age of Perpetual Light, is available now from Grove Atlantic.